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strategy and business
Published: January 21, 2013


The Multipolar MBA

Our students understand what is at stake. They are also increasingly knowledgeable about the new enterprise boundaries in every value chain. They have a mind-set of total responsibility, with a greater ability to forge coalitions between competing groups to find solutions, and more contextual intelligence.

S+B: That sort of knowledge doesn’t come out of a textbook, does it?
No. You have to lead students through carefully coached experiences. Many of our students were actually tackling these issues on their own, through their own clubs, conferences, and social network groups. In some ways, those were attempts to take what they learned in the classroom and apply it to what they were interested in. Historically, that part of education has not been curated. But if so much learning is happening through those activities, we should curate it so that it is not so random.

We can’t impose an identity on a student, but we can create rich experiences and ask them to reflect. For example, in our field approach, you actually have to go deliver a product or a solution, as part of a team, and apply your skills of leading and managing to that team. One of our most popular elective courses is on authentic leadership. It’s largely peer-based learning and self-reflection.

We actually put our students in the teams; we don’t let them self-select. In the working world, you don’t get to pick everybody you work with. They have to manage the cross-cultural issues, and also the gender issues. Some nationalities resist the role of women, for example. The whole goal for us is that education must be transformative. We used to think the transformation happened through the books. But now we know that people can be transformed through their interactions with peers.

S+B: Are all the major business schools doing this, or is Harvard leading the way?
Harvard is actually a fast second mover, as most dominant institutions tend to be. We are not the first to do this, but we are doing it on a scale that is bigger than that of our peers, and we’re putting our own twist on it. Participant-centered learning has always been at the center of what we do. Sometimes we weren’t recognized for this because of the fame of the case method. But the emphasis has always been on participant-centered learning, and I think we’re doubling down on it now. This was made possible by our new dean, Nitin Nohria. He’s not U.S.-born and he’s not an economist but rather an organizational behavior specialist.

S+B: In this environment in which people from so many different national cultures work together, how can you teach ethics? For example, how can you persuade a Chinese or Russian student that it’s wrong to pay off a middleman, or a Saudi student to work on cross-gender teams?
It’s a huge challenge. We haven’t been able to say, “This is right and this is wrong.” We have no Hippocratic Oath. We can say that we know from research that societies with low levels of corruption have faster economic growth. They have better equity markets. But connecting an individual’s self-interest to the collective good is difficult. You have to remember that our traditions, and I say this as an immigrant who has adopted these traditions, come from John Locke and enlightened self-interest. It’s a very real question whether we should be imposing these practices on other countries. Successful Western countries run to other parts of the world and say, “We’re from the West, and we’re here to help you.” I think some humility is needed particularly now that those other economies are doing well.

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